Her challenge lingered in the air even after she had turned and entered her bedchamber. Nieneve closed the door firmly shut before Leopold had a chance to place a foot inside. She was a hard woman to charm and it was obvious from the way she said "doing things we shouldn't be" that she had never opened her legs to a man. This one was still a virgin.
She had made it clear, with flushed cheeks and awkward smiles, that she had no intention of laying with him before their wedding. He began to suspect whether her shy and meek reaction to his flirting was an act, a ploy to leave him wanting her more and doing what ever she asked of him.
"Manipulative bitch," he muttered under his breath as he strode back down the corridor. His eyes were fixed on the stone tiled floor beneath him so he didn't notice a man slipping out one of the rooms until they had collided with each other.
Leopold's hand instinctively dove into his robes where he had his dagger concealed. Tonight's events had not permitted him to carry round a sword, but that hadn't bothered him. He was much more skilled with knives.
In the flickering light of the indoor lanterns this man's face was a frightening picture. Parallel scars curved down both side of his face giving the impression of a stretched grin, but he wore it like a grimace of pain. His eyes were a dark green identical to his uncle Apophis' and the same in the way it seemed to swallow any light that dared to get too close.
Yet after the initial shock had worn away, acceptance of his fate took over the man's features. Although not quite flinging out his arms and screaming at Leopold to kill him, his posture contained no trace of defence.
Instead of plunging the dagger into his chest then and there, Leopold instead decided to ask who he was, but kept his hand firmly gripped on the silver handle just in case. When the man did not respond immediately, the prince urged him to answer. He wasn't going to give this man time to invent a plausible lie.
"I am of your lord uncle's personal guard, your royal highness." The man bowed slightly, but Leopold got the impression that it was more sarcastic than respectful. He noticed that the man did not give his name. He also bore no insignia that marked him as one of his uncle's men. Nevertheless he was certain he had seen this face before, even though he was sure he could never forget those scars.
He must have been one of his uncle's spies. He had heard whispers of his uncle owning such men, but had never personally met one until this day. He would check with Apophis next time they were alone.
"Leave," said Leopold. "And the next time I see you I'll slide this right into your heart." He pulled his dagger out of his robes and held it up to the man's face. Even in the dim light its blade glistened. The man's eyes inspected, from its tip to the coiled silver snake that twisted round it's handle.
"Impressive," said the man. His eyes seemed to beg the prince to plunge it into his chest. Leopold wasn't sure if it was a trick or not.
"A gift, from my uncle." Leopold smiled and put the dagger back inside his robes.
"Must be exhilarating," the man commented, not being able to stop himself, "having something so sharp so close to your heart." Before Leopold could respond, the man bowed quickly and brushed past him, his footsteps leaving behind no sound.
By the time he had reached his bedchamber, Leopold had finally decided compete in tomorrow's jousting tournament. If it's a gallant knight the lady wants, he thought, a gallant knight she will get.
Even from inside the tent, several hundred metres from where the joust was set to take place, he could hear the roar of the crowd getting riled up as the first two competitors mounted their horses.
"I cannot believe," Arfur said loudly so as not to be drowned out, "that you convinced me to let you do this." He gestured towards the hornet emblem on the armour Leopold was wearing. "How did you even get out of observing the joust? I thought this was supposed to be in celebration of your engagement to Nieneve Dracarys."
Leopold brought out a purse and showed his friend its empty contents. "Paid a servant to tell my uncle that I was violently ill," he said with a smug grin.
"He didn't go in to see if it was true?" His friend looked incredulous.
"Paid the royal doctor to support the servant's story and say that it was contagious. My uncle did not dig any further. He has today and the wedding's preparation to worry about."
Arfur inhaled steeply. "The doctor will lose his job if Vyper finds out that he lied."
"Oh well, he wasn't that great a doctor anyway. It's about time my family employed a new one."
"But he's been the royal doctor ever since..." Arfur trailed off, but it was too late. Leopold knew what his friend was about to say.
He had been only day old when this royal doctor had assumed the position. The one before him, the predecessor, Leopold had never known. Although he could remember the doctor's skull, which was sat on the king's desk.
The few times the prince had been inside his father's office, that was the one thing that caught his attention the most. Leopold hated being inside there because of it. Though the skull no longer had eyes it seemed to stare at him, blaming him. You should have been the one executed, not me, it seemed to say. Mother-killing bastard. It was all that was left of the doctor who had delivered him into this world as his mother the Queen slipped out of it.
Suddenly the tents door was flung open. Both Leopold and Arfur leapt up from where they were sitting. They had given strict orders to the Swornsbys' squire not to let anyone inside.
"I've come to swat some bees," cried the booming voice of Sir Iaine Jonas. Unlike Arfur, he did not struggle to be heard over the yells of the crowd. When he saw Leopold in Arfur's armour he paused. "What's going on here then?"
"Iaine please," Arfur scrambled up and rushed towards him. "Please don't tell anyone! My father would never forgive me!"
"That's Sir Iaine," he replied, trying to shake the smaller boy off his arm, but Arfur had a surprising strong grip. "I'm a knight now. I won the title during last year's joust." He raised his head proudly and tossed his long brown locks in the air. "Now will you two tell me what fool's game you are trying to play at."
Leopold did his best to seem more authoritative and strong, but this was a hard task to do when Sir Iaine was at least two heads taller and towered over most people in the kingdom. He had most likely used his height and a suggesting touch of his sword's hilt to scare the squire into letting him inside.
"I am your prince and I will not permit you to speak to me like that!" the knight smirked and even Arfur stifled a giggle. "And... And I command you not to tell anyone of this!"
Sir Iaine's smirk vanished. "And then what? Risk the chance of being beaten by a man everyone thinks is this bumbling idiot." He pointed at Arfur, still clinging to his arm. Arfur frowned, but did not defend himself. He knew better than anyone he was hopeless at jousting or anything else that involved hand eye coordination. The only reason why he had signed up for this event, his first jousting tournament, was because he had run out of excuses to give to his father as to why he could not compete.
"You know I could never beat a champion like you," said Leopold in an attempt to console him. It failed. Sir Iaine may have been a narcissistic man, but he wasn't a fool. He was aware that Leopold was a skilled jouster. The prince had placed third last year despite being one of the younger competitors. His royal status also meant that the knight was more wary of injuring him.
"I'll reveal myself at the end," the prince promised. Arfur released Sir Iaine and ran towards his friend.
"Leopold, you can't! You said you wouldn't let anyone find out it was really you! Please! Father will be disappointed!"
"I never said such a thing," he replied. It was true, but it had been an unspoken agreement that he would not reveal his identity. He felt guilty as though he had broken his word, and worse still as he spoke the next words - he needed to be harsh if he wanted to compete.
"You're your father's third son out of seven others and five daughters. I doubt your father even remembers that you exist half the time. You should be happy that you didn't have to break your own arm this year to avoid competing." He watched as tears began to well up in Arfur's eyes, yellow irises and black pupils like two big bumblebees without their stingers.
Leopold placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'll be eternally grateful and will never forget, even when I'm king." Arfur tears ceased but he still looked upset. "If your father gives you any trouble, tell him I'll have his head." His friend ignored the joke and walked to the other side of the tent, his head hung low.
Just then the squire walked in. He gave Sir Iaine a nervous glance before announcing, "you will be competing next," and leaving the tent quickly.
"Do we have a deal then," he asked the knight. Sir Iaine nodded.
Leopold followed the squire's path outside. He would have to deal with Arfur later.
It was a hot day and even though his armour was made of light, low-quality iron the heat made him sweat. Directly in front of him, on the other side of the jousting strip stood his opponent. He was not acquainted with him, but he recognised his name as belonging to one of the lower lords. Perhaps he was a bastard? They always matched new competitors against the lower born, unless they were part of the royal family of course.
He had better beat this one. It would bring great shame to the Swornsbys if their son was knocked off his horse in the first round. He knew he would not reveal his true identity if he suffered such an embarrassing defeat.
There was a short moment before the match was set to begin. He took the opportunity to peer over at the highest seats on the raised platform reserved only for the royal family. Three of them were empty. They were for him, his father and the one that once sat the queen. The latter had always been empty for him, no one daring to sit there lest they provoke the wrath of the king.
It is a sign of respect, Apophis had told him the first time he had watched a jousting tournament. So that my dear sister the Queen shall not be, never dare be, forgotten. He had said those words solemnly enough, but the corners of his mouth twitched as though he was holding back a smirk and lurking in his eyes was a hint of bitter humour.
Leopold saw Nieneve, sitting beside his empty seat and her brother was on her other side. Despite it only being five jousts in, both wore expressions of boredom, except that Leopold was certain that there was a hint of anticipation in his betrothed's features. She must have had heard of Leopold's 'illness' and put two and two together.
No doubt she would be looking out for him, but probably under a higher status name and in better armour. She had already decided that neither Arfur Swornsby or his opponent could possibly be him. He would prove her wrong.
As the match started, he steadied his horse and grasped tightly onto his lance. "And so it begins," he said to himself as he charged forward.